Deacon Carole Carter has sought healing at Trinity United Church of Christ nearly every Sunday since her chemotherapy began. If she's not there, members call to check on her, thanks to a list of the ailing and homebound published in the church bulletin.
But when reporters and curiosity-seekers descended upon the church last month, Carter got a new kind of call. A producer who plucked her name and number from the prayer list wanted to interview her about Sen. Barack Obama's church."First of all, it's not 'Obama's church.' It's God's church," said Carter, 47, who is being treated for a second bout of breast cancer. "It's not a good situation to be in. I fear for my pastor. I fear for my church."
It has been three weeks since incendiary snippets from sermons delivered by Trinity's longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., surfaced on the Internet and turned Obama's 20-year membership at the South Side church into a potential political liability. Obama denounced the pastor's remarks but did not disown Wright, who has remained silent on the subject since the controversy erupted.
Trinity's leaders say media attention and threats have forced them to confront the question of how to keep the doors open to preach the gospel while comforting Trinity's members and protecting its ministry.
Striking that balance is a challenge for any pastor, said Rev. John Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ, the denomination to which Trinity belongs.
"That's a very difficult challenge for any religious leader who is concerned both for truth and for unity," Thomas said. "How do you hold those together? How much do you stir things up for the sake of really engaging people with the gospel message in the midst of challenging times? How much do you offer comfort to folks who are struggling with many things in life and cannot have one more thing intrude? It's sometimes seen as the struggle between becoming the prophet or the pastor."
On Thursday, Thomas will join Wright's successor, Rev. Otis Moss III, and the head of the National Council of Churches at Trinity to stress that houses of worship are not political arenas but hallowed spaces reserved for sacred conversations with each other and with God.
"Churches are not designed for this," Moss said. "All of a sudden you inject a group of people looking for a story and some unethically looking for something salacious to report -- it heightens the anxiety."
Moss said the day-to-day business of the church cannot pause for a national controversy. During this period, families have dealt with divorce, terminal illness, a shooting and a car accident. Their pain, he said, was amplified when reporters showed up at funerals to interview members.
Ari L. Goldman, a professor at Columbia University Journalism School, said journalists not only have a right to cover the story, they "have an obligation to." However, they too must strike a balance.
"I often tell students first they are guests in this place, and they should act like that," said Goldman, who teaches religion reporting. "It sounds like some journalists have violated good taste."
Reclaiming the sacred space at Trinity is key to opening a productive conversation about race, Thomas said, adding that the church plans to enlist other pastors to foster discussion.
"There needs to be a level of trust and respect in saying to the person you disagree with: 'I still acknowledge the sacredness in you,'" he said. "When that kind of sacredness is violated it makes it difficult to talk about anything with any depth and honesty."
Carter, who joined Trinity 14 years ago, said that shortly after her mastectomy in the fall of 2004, she attended a service where Wright asked survivors of cancer to rise from the pews. He then proclaimed the diagnosis is not a death sentence.
Wright has personally encouraged Carter throughout her battle, she said, and the church has helped her survive.
"It's for my spirituality," Carter said. "I need that. I don't want to stay away."